Album Review — Benny The Butcher’s ‘Burden of Proof’

The quality of albums released in 2020 have been amazing. Across the board in every genre, there’s been a remarkable album to represent every genre. Except for hip hop, which saw a slow start to 2020 and raised concerns for me after a disappointing 2019. But hip hop has come on real strong in the second half of this year. All it’s been missing is a crown jewel release. Until now. Unsurprisingly it comes from one of the best up and comers in hip hop today in Griselda’s Benny The Butcher. After he delivered a top ten album in Country Perspective’s Top Albums of 2019 list, he’s delivering even more with his new record Burden of Proof.

The bouncing title track opens the album and right from the beginning Benny comes out firing with the bars. In this song goes into how him and Griselda did things differently and how now that they’re becoming more famous, more people are trying to copy their style. It also comes with more enemies. The line that best expresses this: “I know how it feels when they don’t like that you did it different/’Cause they dickridin’ trends just like them n***** you mimic.” It’s a great opener that tells you right away what you can expect from this project: hard-hitting bars with a message. The song ends with an entertaining skit too with Pain in Da Ass quoting The Sopranos and another quote from Carlito’s Way.

The spacey and smooth “Where Would I Go” has more fantastic bars from Benny as he reveals in this song his battle with asthma his entire life. Considering the circumstances of COVID-19 in the world right now and how especially important lung strength is in hip hop, this other side of Benny adds another compelling layer to his story and music. This song also has a really nice feature from Rick Ross and it’s a funny thing with Ross for me: I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an album all the way through from him, yet it feels like I enjoy every one of his features. It’s also a pretty big deal to hear the iconic Maybach Music tag next to the Griselda tag at the end, showing how far this scrappy group from Buffalo, New York has come and how they continue to rise.

“Sly Green” is fantastic, as the beat is classic east coast hip hop delivered from producer Hit-Boy. Benny tells stories of what he does best with his storytelling and that’s tales of the street. Like Pusha T and Freddie Gibbs, Benny does an excellent job of showing both sides of street life. While it’s easy from the outside to see the bad side with the obvious violence and dangers that come with it, there’s also the other side where this drug dealing and hustling feeds families. It’s a fascinating dichotomy. Speaking of Gibbs, he joins Benny on “One Way Flight.” These two were great together before on Gibbs’ “Frank Lucas” and they once again they deliver big together (when can we get an entire project with them together?). Butcher’s flow is flawless and at first you think Gibbs is only doing the hook, which sounds great from him, but you gotta have a Gibbs verse if you feature him. Thankfully he comes in at the end and it’s both equally great and hilarious, as he destroys the Los Angeles Clippers with this line: “Get fucked and sent home early just like the Clippers.”

“Famous” is another glimpse into the psyche of Benny The Butcher, as he goes into how he feels to be famous after spending years of hustling on the streets. His overall feeling seems to be a fish out of water and not really comfortable where he’s at now, as he feels caught between two different lives. Two brilliant lines that show this: “I chose money over fame, how I end up with ’em both?/I’m just a dealer to the judgе, and a sinner to the Pope” and “And I never thought I’d make it out the hood/And it don’t feel how I thought it should.” He then concludes the song proclaiming he’s made it, but also not forgetting his roots, as he shouts out the people who have stuck with him and those he’s lost.

“Timeless” is undoubtedly a play for mainstream appeal, as Benny is joined by big names in Lil Wayne and Big Sean. Despite the slicker production and features, it still feels like a Butcher song and something that fits on one of his albums. The production in particular manages to keep that grimy feel you’re used to hearing with Griselda while also having that mainstream polish. Both Wayne and Sean deliver solid features too. “New Streets” sees Benny breaking down how there’s two sides to the street life commonly rapped about in hip hop. As he explains in the song, there’s a lot more than the glamour and happy endings that many in hip hop only rap about and how at the end of the day there’s a lot more bad endings that go even beyond jail time. He also gets into how his mistakes and losses are what ultimately made him into who he is rather than the flashy wins.

It’s this realism and genuineness that shines through in Benny The Butcher’s work that’s quickly making him one of the best in the game, especially when so many in hip hop chase and promote the fake image he speaks out against throughout this album. Of course this isn’t an issue just in hip hop, as every genre struggles with the balance of reality and fantasy, as well as roots and tradition versus new school thoughts and ideas. If one becomes more lopsided, things go haywire. And Benny does such a good job of keeping this in mind with his music.

“Over The Limit” is about Benny getting out of the street game and how his past still haunts him, as federal authorities try to use the stories he raps about in songs against him to incriminate. While his past undoubtedly fuels his music and made him who he is with no regrets, he also doesn’t boast about this past, as he calls himself a survivor and he admits he got out as soon as he knew the consequences were too much as he was building his music career. Again the storytelling from him is excellent, Dom Kennedy is solid on the hook and the dramatic production really adds to the tension of the story being told.

Benny gets sentimental on “Trade It All,” as he gets into his relationships with his family. He raps about how important it is to him be a father to his daughter: “For the n***** in my position, take care of your daughters/No matter what they choose to do, they aware what you taught ’em/My kids took my advice ’cause I’m fair as a father.” This importance carries even more significance, as in the next song he reveals he was raised by a single mother, showing how he wants to be there for his kids like he didn’t have with his dad. Benny also goes into how the loss of his brother MachineGun Black shaped him and the cost he paid with this and how at the end of the day he would trade all of his fortune if he could get him back. It’s quite a deep moment from Benny, as it undoubtedly pulls at the heartstrings to hear such stirring reflection and sobering lessons learned from a hard life.

“Thank God I Made It” is more reflection and gratefulness from Benny, as he thanks his mother for all she did for him and making him the man he is today. He also goes into how the systemic racism in America combined with the broken households of many African American families across the country force so many into the dangers of street hustle, as it’s often the only option to provide for themselves and their families. Benny shouts out his brother again, as he says he feels his spirit as he writes this song. Every part of the lyricism throughout this song is just dripping with passion and impactful messages. Not to mention Queen Naija sounds fantastic on the hook and the soulful production is quite catchy.

“War Paint” is the traditional Griselda track with Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine. The production on this track feels like a final boss level, as it has a cinematic gravitas about it. And as usual this trio sounds fantastic together. Conway steals the song though with these lines, as he delivers with such confidence: “HOV said, “You that boy”, I get acknowledged by the GOAT (What up, HOV?)/Woo, even shook the hand of Beyoncé/That story brought tears to the eye of my fiancée/But I don’t know if it’s because my shorty such a fan/Or did she realize in that moment, I’m the motherfuckin’ man.”

The album closes out with “Legend” and Benny essentially wraps up everything he covers throughout the album: the fame, his friends, family and announcing his arrival to the rest of the world unaware of him before now. Once again so many bars you could choose from throughout this song, as Benny is absolutely relentless. But the following are some of the best on the album: “My team got a will strong enough to beat cancer/Master’s in dope, before that, I had a Bachelor’s in coke/I’m like Ali, I fight better with my back on the ropes/Labels, I passed ’em up, it’s like they after the flow/And my legacy, it’s like they want a fraction of both/Nah, I was good by myself, this how I’m bettin’ now.” I mean you don’t get wordplay better than this, as it not only flows so well, but says so many things in such a short span.

Benny The Butcher gives you everything you want out of an excellent album and then some with Burden of Proof. The lyricism, production, the features and the themes are all flawless. He delivered so many great albums before this, but with this record he reaches a whole new level of greatness in my mind. As he says in the final track on the album, he’s ready to be a legend now. This album more than proves this high claim.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Conway the Machine’s ‘From King To A GOD’

While it feels like most of hip hop is going pop, the Griselda group is perfectly content doing what they do best and that’s delivering some of the grimiest beats and hardest hitting bars in the game. While all three of Benny The Butcher, Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine all bring something great to the table, it feels like Conway in particular has had a rapidly rising 2020. All of his features have been standouts and he delivered a really solid project in LULU with The Alchemist (I haven’t even got a chance to listen to No One Mourns the Wicked yet). So now he’s released what he’s dubbing his debut album in From King to a GOD and it’s without a doubt a fantastic debut from an artist who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best lyricists in hip hop.

The voice of zen writer and speaker Alan Watts greets you on opener “From King,” which is definitely a nice surprise. Conway then does his thing and that’s drop hard hitting bars that set the tone for the album well. And the song ends with a sample of a Kevin Nash promo/Tony Schiavone commentary in WCW because it’s a Griselda album of course. It’s a great opener because I’ll remember it and it makes me want to hear more. Next is “Fear of God,” where Conway has a great, smooth flow and the DeJ Loaf feature fits the song’s attitude, capping off the song with a nice touch.

I really enjoy the griminess of “Lemon,” although the hook is a bit weak. But the bars hit hard, Conway’s delivery is emphatically great and Method Man absolutely kills his verse. His weathered, deep voice matches perfectly with the dark beats. Any other album and this should be easily the best feature, but this album is loaded with amazing guest features. “Dough & Damani” is produced by The Alchemist and of course it’s smooth as hell. Conway and The Alchemist have such great chemistry. Conway also features his more humorous side on this song, which is enjoyable. I particularly enjoy the short kit around two guys arguing over who gets to hold the gun.

“Juvenile Hell” is not only my favorite song on the album, but maybe my favorite song I’ve ever heard from Conway. First the beat on this is absolutely filthy and does 90s boom bap absolutely proud. Then you have the features from Flee Lord, Havoc and Lloyd Banks. Each one of them bring absolute fire, but Banks steals the show with his appearance. His flow over the beat is absolutely flawless and the wordplay is brilliant. The line I really enjoy is “I’m on my rivals, embarrass ‘em with my calm bravado/My alma mater of smackin’ a n**** horizontal.”

Next is the first “Words of Shay” interlude and it’s cool to hear these words from Conway’s close friend DJ Shay, who is unfortunately revealed to be dead later in the album on Conway’s tribute to him on “Forever Droppin Tears.” And I should point out that the title is not just an expression of Conway’s sadness over the passing of his friend, but also a reference to Shay talking about in the interludes how Conway cries when recording songs. So it doubles as Conway’s showing of passion. The song itself is an absolutely beautiful tribute with lots of heartfelt lyrics and great storytelling of the relationship between Shay and Conway. It’s all set over a bouncy and classy beat from Hit-Boy and El Camino adds a lot with his feature. But I will say I don’t think the third interlude was really necessary, as I think the tribute was good as is with just two interludes. Still it doesn’t take away much from one of the highlights of this album.

“Front Lines” is Conway’s take on the civil unrest and Black Lives Matter movement that took place this past summer and the systemic racism that has been taking place for years. Conway does a fantastic job laying out all the issues and once again his storytelling lyricism really shines, particularly when he’s describing how routine police stops quickly turn to violence for many black Americans. The song ends with a clip of a news report of when protesters broke into the Minnesota police precinct this past summer and this definitely fits the song, but I feel it goes a bit too long and smaller clip would have been more effective.

“Anza” is the weakest song of the album, as it’s pop-ish flavor is such a stark contrast to the rest of the record’s sound and sticks out like a sore thumb. It just doesn’t fit and while Armani Caesar is a great MC, her feature is a bit boring. All around this song just doesn’t work within this album. “Seen Everything But Jesus” gets back on the right track though and grows on me more and more with each listen. Conway is joined by Freddie Gibbs and as always Gibbs delivers. A nice surprise we get from Gibbs though is some singing in addition to his always hard-hitting bars. While he seemed to always be joking when doing this earlier in his career, his singing is actually pretty good and I wouldn’t mind hearing him take on some R&B songs. Even his more humorous singing moments are fun (see “FLFM” off Freddie).

“Spurs 3” is the traditional Griselda joint on all Griselda albums and like a Gibbs feature, you can always count on this to be great. The dark and eccentric beat is lively and engaging, with each of Conway, Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher flowing well over it. Although I am a bit surprised that Benny is weakest sounding on this track, as usually he’s the best technical rapper of the trio (Gunn is more about flash and Conway is the sharp lyricist). Nonetheless it’s a solid track.

“Jesus Khrysis” has a spacey, throwback beat that draws on boom bap again, something this album really does a great job with and it’s one of my favorite beats of the album. What makes it even better is the lyricism is top notch, with Conway delivering excellent verses like “N***** try blockin’ my goals, I’ma make it Messi” and “That’s the zone I’m in, I write with a golden pen/But lately, I ain’t even been writin’, I just been goin’ in.” Not only is the later a great bar, but also a possible glimpse into Conway’s approach to writing because apparently him and Benny both go into the studio and record without any lyrics written down. They do it all from the top of their head, which if true, makes the songwriting even more impressive.

“Nothin’ Less” is another banger that closes the album out strong. It has a surprise feature from DJ Premier, who fits yet another amazing boom bap inspired song. And some people may find the reliance on boom bap influences on this album to be lazy, but I completely disagree when so much of hip hop nowadays is filled with generic, pop radio chasing beats and trying so hard to sound like a Drake song. So I find throwback beats like this be quite refreshing because it pays homage to the roots of the genre and the producers on this album also bring a modern flavor to it, avoiding sounding dated too. And of course it helps to have a great lyricist like Conway to rap over it, as a lot of rappers would get eaten up by the sound.

From King to a GOD is a fantastic proper debut album from Conway The Machine, as he brings his signature sound and high quality lyricism that longtime fans have come to appreciate him for while also bringing a level of accessibility in the music that will surely attract new fans too.

Grade: 9/10